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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

What Looks Like Profiling Might Just Be Good Policing

Los Angeles’ perennial critics of the cops are going to have to decide: Do they want policing that mirrors the demographics of the city or goes after criminals? They cannot have it both ways.

Recently released data compiled by the Los Angeles Police Department as part of a federal consent decree show that the city’s officers are more likely to ask black and Latino drivers to step out of their cars after stopping them than their white counterparts. Once out of their cars, members of these minorities are more likely to be patted down or searched. Ipso facto, say the critics, L.A. cops discriminate against minorities.

Not so fast. To the charge that the police have “too many” law enforcement interactions with minorities, the question must always be: “Too many” compared to what? To compare stop, search and arrest data to demographics, as cop critics would have us do, is absurd. The police don’t formulate their crime strategies based on census findings; they go where the crime is.

What’s more, an officer’s decision to ask a person to step out of a car or to search that person is triggered by behavioral and contextual cues -- nervousness, threatening behavior, resemblance to a suspect, absence of a license and car registration, tinted windows, among others -- that are not even remotely captured by demographics.

To benchmark police activity, one must start, at a bare minimum, with the rate of lawbreaking among various groups, for it is ultimately criminal behavior and its consequences that drive police actions. Any disparities in crime rates will have compounding effects throughout the law enforcement system.

For example, last year a man with a gold tooth was robbing and viciously beating up pedestrians in Mid-City. Victims identified him as either a dark-skinned Latino or a light-skinned African American. Accordingly, if an officer made a traffic stop in the area and noticed that the driver had a gold tooth and was black or Latino, the driver probably would have been asked to step out of his car, frisked and possibly even taken to the station house for a line-up. Some 15 men were stopped before a bike officer caught the actual criminal jaywalking.

Those 15 brief detentions went into the LAPD database, but the racial disparities they suggest are misleading. If criminal activity is not evenly distributed across the population, investigatory stops and searches will fall heaviest on individuals who are members of groups who commit most of the crime.

In Los Angeles, crime rates are in fact lopsided. In 2001, blacks committed 41% of all robberies, according to victims’ descriptions given to the LAPD, though they constitute only 11% of the city’s population. Robbery victims named whites, who make up 30% of the population, 4% of the time, while Latinos, 46% of the population, were identified as the assailant in 45% of such crimes. The figures for aggravated assault and rape are similarly skewed. Only if the police searching for the gold-toothed robber had arbitrarily stopped some whites could they have avoided contributing to racially disproportionate data.

Multiply this problem tens of thousands of times, and you will understand why police data look as they do. Furthermore, if criminals are disproportionately black and Latino, so will be parolees and probationers. Police can search parolees and probationers after stopping them to make sure that they are complying with the terms of their release and not carrying contraband. Without doubt, a portion of the searches in the LAPD data represents multiple encounters with this particular population, though the data are too crude to identify how large it is.

And where is criminal activity taking place? Nearly half of all homicides in 2001 occurred in South-Central, and slightly more than half of them were gang-related, according to the Police Department. It stands to reason that homicide investigators will spend a disproportionate amount of time there, where African Americans and Latinos predominate. It is not racism that sends them there; it is the incidence of crime. Would cop bashers prefer that officers investigating a murder on Western Avenue go to Brentwood for the sake of racial balance?

Once in South-Central, the police will probably look for homicide suspects among gang members. If a cop spots a driver flashing gang signs after running a red light, the man will probably be asked to step out of his car when stopped and, if exhibiting suspicious behavior, frisked. Police investigating a murder spree by the Aryan Brotherhood in the Foothill Division would do the same if they spotted a white driver behaving similarly.

Rates of lawbreaking are just the start of what’s needed to analyze police activity. Many other details -- including patterns of police deployment, relative number of young people in various populations, locations of high-profile crimes and prevalence of illegal immigrants lacking driver’s licenses -- are also important.

The reemergence of racial-profiling charges following the release of the LAPD data could not have come at a worse moment for the city. The many law-abiding residents in crime-plagued neighborhoods are crying out for protection from the escalating violence. Go to any police-community meeting in a crime-ridden area and the most frequent complaint you will hear is “Why aren’t there more cops getting dealers and gangbangers off the streets?” rather than “Why are you profiling us?”

Sure, some L.A. officers antagonize civilians with their unnecessarily aggressive attitudes, and the department must teach them communications skills and courtesy. But that is a far different problem than endemic officer racism.